Monday, March 10, 2008


Book jacket photo of Kingsolver/Hopp family by Hank Daniel

I've just finished Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family's move from Arizona to Virginia coupled with their decision to spend a year eating only local produce (or as close to that ideal as they could get). The account unfolds chronologically from one March to the next and details the year's gardening, turkey and chicken raising, and questing for local food sources. The family's motivation was mainly ecological--the desire to minimize their dependence on food shipped from overseas or trucked from afar at immense cost in energy. But Kingsolver also convincingly asserts the old macrobiological principle that it's healthier to eat locally. Kingsolver proceeds with a light touch that leavens the serious principles she espouses and helps avoid any self-righteousness. The family is methodical about their "locavore" experiment but not obsessive. They buy coffee, spices, and occasional chocolate from distant sources, splurge on cranberries for Thanksgiving, and never succeed in finding a good local source for wheat flour. Topical sidebars by Kingsolver's husband Steven Hopp (a biologist) and her older daugher Camille (a Duke student) complement the narrative.
Although I recently read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (a nice companion piece to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), I don't remember previously reading an entire book so exclusively about food, covering everything from the problems with agribusiness to a recipe for pumpkin soup. I guess I was pulled in by the scope of it, coupled with the intimacy of family life (e.g., the younger daughter Lucy's establishment of an egg business or decisions about exactly what to serve dinner guests in mid February). We have always eaten conscientiously in our house and have even previously had substantial gardens (something that our fully shaded yard now sadly precludes). But I've never been "into" food--unlike my mom who in her day could pore for hours over recipes (to delicious effect) and--until we started weeding them out--had hundreds of cookbooks in her collection. I admit that I didn't digest every recipe in this book, but I read with fascination about the family's dogged and ingenious back-to-the-land lifestyle.
Obviously, most families could not do this because of the demands of jobs and family, as well as limitations of space. Most of us would encounter far more crop failures and botched plantings than Kingsolver admits to. But she's not trying to convert us all into complete locavores, only to urge us to think more carefully about our food sources and act accordingly.
Spring is the perfect time to read this book. It leaves me longing to dig in the soil and plant something, even if it's just a few herbs or a tomato in a bucket. I do look forward to a future when I'll have time, space, and sunlight for an ample garden--one that might move us a little closer to the ideal of eating locally.
Claire Tomalin on the greatness of Milton
MTV "Think" page on current issues

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